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Tracing long-term effects of veterans' traumatic brain injuries - KOAA.com | Continuous News | Colorado Springs and Pueblo

Tracing long-term effects of veterans' traumatic brain injuries

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Since the year 2000, more than 361,000 military service members have been diagnosed with some form of traumatic brain injury. Effects can be lifelong, which can mean decades of related physical and behavioral issues for service members who enter veteran status in their twenties.

One Fort Carson soldier showed News 5's Zach Thaxton the helmet that saved his life in 2015. Thousands of service members across all branches have similar stories, and though the equipment may be life-saving, it's not likely to be preventative for traumatic brain injuries. 

"Helmets have claimed to prevent concussions, and bottom line is they don't," said Dr. Rocky Khosla, a concussion and brain injury specialist. Dr. Khosla says even just firing heavy weapons in artillery training can cause temporary impairment to learning and memory. "The soldier has it shoulder-mounted, they're firing it, there's a lot of force there, and there's concussive potential."

What's not clear yet is whether these types of temporary symptoms can lead to long-term traumatic brain injuries. TBI's are a major focus of attention and treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and despite recent press suggesting the contrary, the head of the TBI department at the Denver VA says artillery training-related TBI's represent barely a fraction of cases they see.

"It's not something that we typically see. Not that it's impossible -- it definitely does occur and I have seen it. It's just not the norm," Dr. Ryan Stephenson said.

Dr. Khosla says TBI's affect more than just the individual who suffers from it. "All sorts of altered behavior, bizarre behavior... risk-taking, bad financial moves, they became violent, sometimes their family wouldn't even recognize them anymore for what they were doing... it's horrendous," Dr. Khosla said.

The effect of military service-incurred TBI's on chronic traumatic encephalopathy also remains unclear. CTE is diagnosed only after death and is believed to be related to repeated concussions. It's thought to have played a role in the suicides of former professional athletes, including former Heisman trophy winner Rashaan Salaam.

"Even though CTE is a scary hypothesis and there's been a lot made of it, the link isn't really that well-established at this point," Dr. Stephenson said.

The VA and DOD put out a 112-page concussion guideline in 2009. Both Dr. Khosla and the VA say more research and innovation are essential for future prevention.

"In the military, I know they're doing a lot to develop helmet technology and also helmet sensors to really detect when a service member may have experienced a force significant enough to cause some sort of disruption," Dr. Stephenson said.

A study published just this week shows nearly 25 percent of the 2.5 million service members and veterans who deployed to Afghanistan sustained at least one mild TBI. The VA is about to start a decades-long federally funded study to track the long-term effects of mild TBI.

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